Colleges Unnecessarily Assign Students to Remedial Classes, Studies Say

Community colleges misassign tens of thousands of students to remedial classes because of their use of unreliable placement exams, according to two studies from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The CCRC’s studies find that the exams "do not yield strong predictions of how students will perform in college," and that schools would be better served factoring in high school grade point average (GPA) in their placement decisions.

The two studies, one of a large community college system and the other of a statewide system, found that more than 25% of students assigned to remedial classes could have passed college-level courses with at least a B average, according to the New York Times. Additionally, a majority of recent high school graduates are placed in remedial classes, which cost as much as other courses, but offer no college credit. Furthermore, fewer than 25% of students who start in remedial classes go on to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree.

"We hear a lot about the high rates of failure in college-level classes at community colleges," Judith Scott-Clayton, the author of the large community college study and a Columbia University professor of economics and education and senior research associate, said to the NY Times. "Those are very visible. What’s harder to see are the students who could have done well at college level, but never got the chance because of these placement tests."

The CCRC’s studies calculated the accuracy rate of student placement and found that three out of 10 English students are severely misassigned, while the rate for math is "lower, but still nontrivial." The study suggests that using high school GPA instead of placement tests reduces the error rate by half, according to a CCRC press release.

Yet, Clive Belfield, one of the study’s authors and an economics professor at Queens College in New York City, told the NY Times that it would be a mistake to make academic placement decisions on one factor. "It’s probably a mistake to rely on any single measure for high-stakes decisions," Belfield said. "Where you have both a test and a high school transcript, the best thing is to use both together."

It’s important to note that while many schools will recommend remedial classes, a student can still enroll in their regular courses if they choose to do so. Many schools are aware of the problem of misassigning students to remedial classes and are rethinking their enrollment procedures, Walter G. Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, told the NY Times."I haven’t seen the studies," he said, "but what I do know is that when I talk with leaders of community colleges, a lot of them have issues with the diagnostic tests and sense that far too many students are being put in developmental, remedial education, especially in math. Almost every one of them has some plan to change that."

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